"You and I, Arjuna, have lived many lives,
I remember them all; you do not remember."
Krishan, in the Bhagavad Gita

(Investigator 142, 2012 January)

Metempsychosis, or reincarnation to give it a more popular name, is a belief that we, or at least our souls, return after death to inhabit the same or another form.

This belief is held by millions of people around the world and is the doctrine of many religions, in particular Buddhism and Hinduism. While Aristotle said, "one of the most difficult things in the world is to attain any assured knowledge about the soul", and other ancient philosophers were in agreement with him about the existence of the soul, there was a difference of opinion as to the form it would, or could enter, on its return after physical death.

Early Egyptians were of the opinion that when the body dies, the soul passes through diverse forms of animal, bird and fish life before re-entering a human frame. Plato envisaged the soul traversing the heavens as an angel going through various states of probation before they choose a second life, and Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, says that it will assume at the resurrection, the life of a brute if it lived as a brute in this world, or will be borne away to the heavenly life to which it adhered while living in the world.
Believers in the metaphysical concept of life after death claim that just because the soul cannot be seen it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, pointing to electricity, magnetism and the many radiations that cannot be seen but nevertheless are known to exist.

There have been many documented cases of people claiming to have lived previous lives, and those recorded under hypnosis are reputedly the most convincing, as in the case of Bridey Murphy.

In 1952, an American hypnotist Morey Bernstein regressed one Mrs Virginia Tighe during which session she recalled with remarkable clarity her life in County Cork, Ireland, in the early 19th century as an Irish girl named Bridey Murphy. The account was published in a 1956 best seller, The Search for Bridey Murphy, and was considered one of the most conclusive pieces of evidence in support of reincarnation to date. The publication sparked off a resurgence of interest in reincarnation, and Henry Blythe, a professional hypnotist, took up this interest using a subject by the name of Mrs Naomie Henry. His experiment was witnessed and recorded; the hypnotist taking Mrs Henry back to her childhood and asking questions about her previous existences. The subject spoke of being an Irish girl, Mary Cohen, in the year 1790, and her reincarnation again as Clarice Hellier, a nurse born in 1880.

Some of the most compelling evidence for past lives received publicity in 1974, when BBC-TV producer Jeffrey Iverson based a programme on the Bloxham Tapes, tape recordings made by Arnold Bloxham, an English hypnotist, of past-life regressions. Outstanding of these was the case of Jane Evans, who under hypnosis recalled in extraordinary detail many past lives, including one in early Roman Britain, and one as a medieval lady-in-waiting to one of Henry the VIII's wives, Catherine of Aragon.

Edgar Cayce, "the sleeping prophet", is often quoted on the subject of reincarnation, and he too presents some convincing arguments in support of the belief. Unlike the orthodox method of regressing the subject under hypnosis to obtain information about a subject's past, Cayce claimed that while in a trance, his own sub-conscious would pick up that information from the subject's sub-conscious. Of the 2500 readings in which clients were told by Cayce of their previous lives, the example of a 14 year old boy in 1927 by the name of David Greenwood is representative. The sleeping prophet recalled the boy's life 10,000 years ago in Atlantis, and in Egypt, Persia, ancient Greece and 17th Century France.

Dr Ian Stevenson, a professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and a parapsychologist, has contributed much in the way of research material in support of reincarnation, and his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, is quoted as affording the full dignity of acceptance of reincarnation by a distinguished professor.

The American Society for Psychical Research has investigated more than two hundred cases purported to be serious evidence for reincarnation and has devoted Volume 26 of its proceedings to Stevenson's work. Many of the cases follow a similar pattern, and involve infants recalling events experienced in a previous existence of which they could not possibly have had knowledge. One example is that of Shanti Devi born in Delhi in 1926 who, at the age of seven, informed her parents that she had been born before in the town of Muttra, with the given name of Ludgi, had been married with three children, and had died giving birth to the third.

The parents dismissed this as imagination until in 1935, when a visitor to the house was recognized by Shanti as the cousin of the man Ludgi to whom she had been married. Subsequently Shanti Devi instantly recognized and embraced her 'husband' in a previous life when he was brought to the house unannounced. When taken to Muttra, she was able to point out people and places correctly and converse in the local dialect although she had only been taught Hindi.

The idea of life after death or the return to life in another form, is an appealing concept to most of us. Unfortunately, the argument that reincarnation is a real phenomenon, is based on anecdotal evidence which either lacks sufficient detail to enable investigation, or where investigation is possible, it does not stand up to scrutiny. Cases allegedly proving reincarnation are numerous and usually depend on memory recall while under hypnosis. Where a detailed investigation is possible, it is inevitably shown that the information supposedly recalled from a past life has in fact been culled from everyday experiences during one's present life. The cases of Bridey Murphy and Jane Evans are classic examples. The Bridey Murphey case was thoroughly investigated, and the Chicago American published an expose.

Under hypnosis, Mrs Virginia Tighe clearly recalled her previous life as a young Irish girl, could recite monologues in a heavy Irish brogue, and provide a wealth of detail, some of which could be checked for verification. Investigation however, revealed that as a child, Mrs Tighe had had a neighbour who had grown up in Ireland and used to tell her stories about life there — the neighbour's name was Bridey Murphy! Mrs Tighe had also been involved in the theatre and, according to her former teacher, had learned several Irish monologues.

The case of Jane Evans is also cited by many as proof of reincarnation. The Welsh housewife claimed under hypnosis to have lived six previous lives and again gave a great deal of historically accurate detail in support. In one past life she claimed to have been a maid to Jacques Coeur, a wealthy merchant in 15th century France. She was able to fully describe the exteriors and interiors of Coeur's magnificent house and even the details of the carvings over a fireplace. This on the face of it would seem like proof, however, it should be borne in mind that Coeur's famous house is one of the most photographed in all of France. Evan's account of her life in the merchant's house however provides the most significant lie to her story. She said that Coeur was not married when in fact he was, and had five children, something a maid in that household would be unlikely to overlook!

How could Jane Evans be so familiar with so much detail had she not lived the life herself? Research carried out by Melvin Harris (1986), and detailed in his book, Investigating the Unexplained, suggests that the answer can be found in a novel based on Coeur's life titled, The Moneyman by C. B. Costain (1948). While the book goes into great detail about Coeur's life it is significant in so far as it omits any mention of his wife and children.

 Likewise, other incarnations described by Jane Evans can be traced, sequence by sequence, to Jane Plaidy's historical novel, Katherine, the Virgin Widow, and to Louis de Wohl's best seller, The Living Wood (1947). Harris (p 161), concludes that "Jane Evans has the ability to subconsciously store vivid accounts and combine and edit these creatively — to the point where she becomes one of the characters involved."

Like Virginia Tighe and others, who albeit quite sincerely believe that they a recalling experiences from past lives while under hypnosis, reincarnationists are in truth only recalling what they have seen, read or heard in their present existence.

Ian Stevenson has written much on the subject of reincarnation, but although his case studies are often referred to as thoroughly investigated and authentic, the methods used to investigate the phenomenon have been criticised as being too inadequate to rule out simple story telling. Stevenson's investigations of Indian children allegedly reincarnated are set down in considerable detail, and although he presents them as strongly suggestive of reincarnation he doesn't go as far as to claim them as evidence. When further checks are made, the results are far from encouraging. The most telling indicator is to list the circumstances of each subject for whom reincarnation memories are claimed, that is, their status in life — rich or poor, high or low caste, and alongside list the social circumstances of the dead person whose reincarnation the child purports to be. It becomes immediately apparent, with very few exceptions, that the first column is representative of India's poor while the second column features the wealthy end of the social spectrum, this can only indicate a motive. A poor family has nothing to lose and much to gain by representing their child as the reincarnation of a recently deceased member of a rich family, either through direct help from that family or through publicity.

A problem rarely addressed by reincarnationists is the exponential increase in the world's population. In 1650, the world's population was estimated at 500,000,000. By the late 19th century it had increased to 2,700,000,000 and since then it has almost doubled. Obviously there were simply not enough people for everyone to have been someone else. Further, unless many famous historical personages had identical twins secreted away from public view, when there is more than one person claiming to be say a reincarnated Napoleon or Henry VIII, their claims are to say the least, dubious. One philosophy (possibly based on the doctrine of reward and punishment) suggests the possibility of people-animal transmigration. The same mathematics apply, and I doubt whether many would relish coming back in some of the repugnant forms which spring to mind.

Few people would, in their sober moments claim to be reincarnated or have lived previous lives; under hypnosis however the inhibitions fall by the wayside, and the information gleaned from the sub-conscious together with imagination and suggestion is accorded respectability out of all proportion to its value in establishing the validity of a claim.

Hypnosis, as a basis for establishing the validity of reincarnation is suspect on the grounds that it completely disregards all the physiological implications of procreation, learning and memory. Prior to conception, a being does not exist — verbum sap! Therefore, no mind exists nor a conscious or sub-conscious memory. Likewise, the pre-natal development of a child is unaffected by the mother's thoughts, because there is no connection between the brains and nervous systems of the mother and the embryo. As a result of the growth already taken place before birth, the new born infant is equipped with the responses necessary to sustain life, such as breathing and feeding.

Only after random and spontaneous physical movements leading to the development of the motor area at about 10 or 11 months, does sensory consciousness develop. The child learns from that around it, its concepts developing slowly through experience. Memory therefore, which implies the capacity to recall events and experiences can only begin at conception, or more precisely, after birth.

The end products of hypnosis then, are the suggestion-induced fantasy creations of imaginative subjects. Reincarnation is a make-believe game of regression, the acceptance of which is a composite index of the subject's attitudes and beliefs.


Bernstein, M. 1956. The Search for Bridey Murphy. Warner Books.
Costain, C.B. 1948. The Moneyman.
Harris, Melvin. 1986. Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York.
Hintze, N.A. and Pratt, J.G. 1975. The Psychic Realm. What Can You Believe. Random House, NY.
Langley, N. 1967. Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation. Warner Books.
Myers, F.W.H. 1961. Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death. University Books Inc.
Pike, Bishop J.A. 1969. The Other Side. WH. Allen. London.
Smith, A.J. 1954. Immortality: the Scientific Evidence. Signet Books.
Stevenson, I. 1974. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
Wilson, C. 1973. The Occult. Mayflower Books, London.

From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age

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